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Tension eases in Ferguson, focus shifts to grand jury charges

A peace sign was tucked among teddy bears in a memorial created for Michael Brown in the spot where his body lay.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

A peace sign was tucked among teddy bears in a memorial created for Michael Brown in the spot where his body lay.

FERGUSON, Mo. — Conditions calmed this week in Ferguson after nights of sometimes violent unrest stemming from the fatal shooting of a black 18-year-old by a white police officer. But a crucial question lingers: What happens if the grand jury now considering the case doesn’t return a charge against the officer?

The fear among some residents and officials trying to maintain peace in Ferguson is that a failure to charge the officer could stoke new anger among a community mistrustful of the legal system.

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Many say they just hope the grand jury’s decision, whatever it is, has irrefutable facts to back it up.

US Senator Claire McCaskill said she is pushing for federal and local investigations to be completed around the same time so that all evidence in the case can be made public — a step many consider important should prosecutors decide not to charge the officer.

Her office said Friday that the Department of Justice hasn’t given a timeline for the federal investigation, which centers on whether a civil rights violation occurred when officer Darren Wilson fatally shot the unarmed Brown Aug. 9.

McCaskill, a former prosecutor in Missouri, said she’s hopeful the physical evidence in the case — including blood spatter patterns, clothing, and shell casings — will provide ‘‘incontrovertible facts’’ about what happened during the shooting.

She said whatever local prosecutors decide, it will be important to explain the decision by providing that physical evidence, and that won’t be possible if the federal investigation is ongoing.

McCaskill said she urged Attorney General Eric Holder during a meeting earlier this week to speed up what is typically a lengthier federal process.

‘‘What we want to avoid is a decision being made without all the information being available to the public also,’’ McCaskill said, adding that not being able to do so could ‘‘create more stress and certainly much more fear that we would be back to worrying about people being able to protest safely.’’

Governor Jay Nixon, in an interview Friday, didn’t say if he agreed with McCaskill’s call to conclude both investigations at the same time. He said the full focus is on seeking justice.

Many Ferguson residents, eager to end the disruptions to their lives caused by protests and police presence, say they fear the community’s anger will explode anew if Wilson isn’t charged.

St. Louis County prosecutors this week convened a grand jury to begin hearing evidence in the case, despite concerns among some in the community — including Brown’s parents — that the office would not be impartial because of District Attorney Bob McCulloch’s ties to law enforcement.

McCulloch’s father, mother and other relatives worked for St. Louis police, and his father was killed while responding to a call involving a black suspect. He has said he will not remove himself from the case.

Considering the racial tensions of the case, even the makeup of the grand jury was being closely scrutinized. Two black women and one black man are on the 12-member panel, along with six white men and three white women, said Paul Fox, director of judicial administration for St. Louis County Circuit Court.

Without specifically mentioning the grand jury’s racial makeup, the Brown family’s attorney, Benjamin Crump, said the panel ‘‘works perfectly’’ as long as the prosecutor presents the necessary evidence and doesn’t withhold information.

He said the family doesn’t believe the grand jury was necessary, arguing that the prosecutor had sufficient grounds to charge the officer on his own.

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